Fern Cave

Fern Cave likes to keep its secrets. The passages alternate between deep pits, sinuous interwoven canyons, massive rooms, and stream passages that wind through the heart of Nat Mountain. Tantalizing hints of the past are sprinkled throughout the cave in the form of ancient bone fragments, piles of charcoal, and torch marks at the bottom of deep, difficult pits. Casual explorers rarely make it far; confused and consternated by the vast array of passage choices as soon as they pass through an entrance, few find their destination without a guide. To fully explore and understand the mysteries of Fern Cave requires patience, dedication, and a love of unlocking hidden clues.

Cavers (the term for people who love to explore caves) from Huntsville, Alabama discovered Fern Cave and the 437-foot-deep Surprise Pit in 1961 when the art of exploring deep vertical holes in the ground (we call it vertical caving) was in its infancy. Cavers used new and innovative techniques to plumb the depths of the deepest vertical pit (so far!) in the United States. For many years, Fern remained just that—a challenging vertical pit—until a combination of discoveries in 1968 and 1969 when  Huntsville cavers once again made two of the most significant discoveries in southeastern caving history. They discovered the Morgue Cave and New Fern Cave, setting off a flurry of exploration and cave mapping in an attempt to connect all three caves into one system. They would achieve that goal, but the amount of effort that went into exploring the new caves was far beyond what cavers first expected—and along the way, cavers discovered much more cave than they ever imagined.

I am in the process of completing a book about the entire history of Fern Cave. The book will be available in July at the National Speleological Society’s annual convention in Huntsville, Alabama. The book starts in 1961 and the discovery of Surprise Pit and continues through the discovery of the Morgue Cave and New Fern Cave, connecting all three caves together into one cave system, and finally connecting the lower stream entrance via and underwater passage. Cavers found out that the cave is over 15 miles long, 400 feet from the top levels of the cave to the lowest levels, and has 18 distinct and very different levels.

You can see the Table of Contents and sample chapters:

The book describes the discovery of the colony of endangered gray bats, ancient animal bones (and a human bone!), and locating torch marks throughout deep reaches of the cave. I also discuss how the cave became a wildlife refuge in 1981, how cavers teamed up with biologists to effectively manage the cave, and how that partnership sort of fell apart in the era of white-nose syndrome. Throughout the book, I describe many of the interesting personalities involved in discovering and exploring this massive cave system and I describe the cave itself. In fact, the cave is the most important character in this story. I also tell many fantastic stories of what it took to find all of the interlocking and extremely confusing sections in the cave.

What I’m doing now:

My editor Cara Stein (www.bookcompletion.com) is working her magic on the book, getting rid of typos and making sure that the organization and structure of the story make sense.

What I’m about to do:

Graphic artist extraordinaire and my good friend Sabrina Simon is going to lay out the book and the cover. We are about to start sifting through the hundreds of historic photographs I’ve found during my research. There are some great old photographs, plus I also have new photographs that are gorgeous.

Who is publishing the book?

I’m self publishing. Many cavers will probably wonder why I didn’t go through the National Speleological Society’s publishing process, but I had a few reasons. First, I want to split the proceeds between the NSS Library and the Southeastern Cave Conservancy. It didn’t seem fair to ask the NSS to front the money for this project, but to then ask them to give half the profits to the SCCi. I always wanted to avoid any bureaucratic entanglements. I’ve been working on this book for years, know what I want it to look like, and want to proceed with my vision for the book.

How will the book be funded?

I’m going to use a crowd-sourcing site called Indiogogo to sell advance copies of the book. To thank you for buying a book, you’ll be able to choose from a range of thank you gifts including prints from JV Van Swearingen IV of the cave, prints of the endangered gray bats in the cave, prints of small sections of the new cave map, a presentation for your organization, and more. I am not going to print many more copies than the pre-order numbers, so if you want one, order it now!

Keep watch on my blog for daily updates

I’m planning to post photos, stories, and old articles about Fern pretty often until the book is printed. In addition, people who pre-order a book will get access to a password protected section on my webpage with many more photos, maps and stories than I could fit in the book.

Fern Cave Surprise Pit

Fern Cave Surprise Pit

Caver entering Fern Cave to visit Surprise Pit. From the 1965 slide show Depths of Fern.


  1. Gary Smith says

    Hey Jennifer, What’s going on with your book. Schedule? I got a few PDF’s from Steve a year or two ago. It was funny, he and I had just connected on FB and he was working on a survey that I had sketched. I must admit that seeing his finished map looked quite a bit more respectable than the last time I saw my muddy sketches. Most all of my stuff was in the north cave.

    I would love to pre-purchase a copy. Can you let me know the details? Maybe point at what I’d need to follow on FB?

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